Rifle marksmanship instills confidence

Published 8:54 am Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Column: Pothole Prairie

You go to preschool, elementary school, middle school and then high school. Then, if you join the military, you start all over and go to something called basic. That’s short for basic training, aka boot camp.

And everybody has stories about basic. And nobody in the military calls it boot camp anymore. It’s just basic.

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I have a story from basic for you.

I finished at Pomeroy High School in May 1989 in little, old Pomeroy, Iowa, and entered the military in August that year though the processing station in Des Moines, whereby I was flown to Columbia, S.C., and bused to nearby Fort Jackson.

Through much of the training, I did a fairly swell job of maintaining a low profile. I did what I was told, and drill sergeants didn’t know me, which is what I liked. At one point, when we had some time to shoot the breeze, we concluded that I was the only one left in our platoon who hadn’t been smoked.

Smoked, by the way, is when a trainee gets in trouble with a drill sergeant, who then proceeds to exercise the living daylights out of the trainee or else be given a painful position. This is handy when the sergeant, er, I mean, drill sergeant can’t be there to bark commands at you and call you allowable names (i.e.: no cussing) like, “Goatface” and “Buckethead.” One position was the dying cockroach. Lie on the ground and put your feet and hands straight up in the air and stay like that. They also had the chair. Bend your knees so you are in a sitting position and use a wall for a backrest, but there is no chair and your arms and hands must be straight outward.

OK, you get it. I had done a pretty good job; that is, until BRM. That stands for basic rifle marksmanship.

I couldn’t shoot a gun. Er, I mean, a weapon. In the military, it is called a weapon or a rifle — not a gun.

The only weapon I had ever fired before I enlisted was highly illegal. When I was 17, two friends and I drove out to a low-maintenance dirt road — the kind with two ruts and weeds growing down the middle. One of the friends had purchased a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun, and we each took turns shooting at glass pop bottles. I hit a bottle once and missed on three other tries.

Allow me to note that I didn’t know sawed-off shotguns were illegal.

Our platoon learned about the M-16A1 assault weapon, went through zeroing, target practice and more. We learned prone and foxhole positions. We soon drew close to qualification day. Qualification required 20 in prone and 20 in foxhole. Targets resembling head and shoulders or else half a man would pop up at distances varying from 50 to 300 meters.

I wasn’t hitting targets.

Two days away from qualification day, I shot a 17 out of 40. Qualifying required at least 25.

We had two drill sergeants. Sinclair was the top one, Logan the secondary one.

Back at the barracks, Logan put anyone who shot less than 25 in the chair. I finally was getting smoked.

Sinclair brought me into his office and chewed me out. He told me to “pack my (expletive)” because if I didn’t turn it around I would be going home.

When he dismissed me, I returned to my bunk and fell crying into my pillow. By no means did I want to fail basic, for the sake of my family and everyone I knew back in Pomeroy.

In basic we had the buddy system. We were all assigned buddies. My buddy was from Roanoke Rapids, N.C., and he told me I was too nervous when I was shooting. In fact, there were eight to a room (these weren’t barracks like in “Full Metal Jacket”), and they all came to help me. They told me to believe in myself and go to the range with confidence. I also mentioned how many of my shots were a little low. So someone gave me a nail so I could lower my front sight by one click.

The next day, I did my best to be in the right mindset going to the range. Calm. Relaxed. Confident. I shot 28 out of 40.

Logan stood in front of the platoon and told us that the same ones having trouble before at the range were still having trouble. Then he paused and said, “Except one.” He said he wanted the other struggling shooters to learn from me. I had to tell the platoon what I did to get better. What a confidence booster!

Qualification day. Sinclair stood right behind me as I stepped to my foxhole. We soldiers guessed that the drill sergeants had side wagers on how their platoons would perform. He added pressure by yelling at me, something like “You’d better do good,” but I just ignored him. He was mean acting but usually it was more funny mean, not really mean.

That day, I hit just about every target except a few. In fact, one target accidentally dropped without me using a round, so I was able to fire twice at a missed target later on. The tower read the scores. “Lane 4: 37.”

I jumped up and down and said, “Yes!”

“Soldier!” Sinclair barked.

“Oh yes.”

I wasn’t supposed to jump because something might go off. But Sinclair added, “Good job!”

Thirty-seven was good enough for an expert badge. Our platoon ended up doing better than the other ones in the company, which meant that our drill sergeants won their wager and our platoon’s guidon got the BRM ribbon.

And for the rest of my time in the Army, I always qualified as 36 or better, which allowed me to keep my expert badge all the way through.

It just goes to show you that confidence makes a big difference. Basic does a great job of instilling confidence.


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.


About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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